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ViroChip Inventor Wins MacArthur Fellowship

By Kate Ruder

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Joe DeRisi likes a challenge, particularly one that involves an unknown strain of virus. This University of California San Francisco scientist has built a microchip that can be used to detect viruses. He calls it the ViroChip.

DeRisi has put the DNA sequences of all known viruses on a microchip—22,000 sequences to be exact. DeRisi has a person cough in a cup and uses the chip to screen the phlegm for DNA. Because each virus has a genetic signature, DeRisi can pinpoint which virus the patient has.

He talked about his latest research using the ViroChip this week on the opening day of GSAC, the Genome Sequencing and Analysis Conference in Washington, D.C., a meeting where researchers in academia and industry meet to discuss advances in genomics.

DeRisi and his colleagues have used the chip to detect a particularly nasty strain of the common cold that was making people sick at a nursing home in San Francisco. They have also diagnosed various viruses from over 350 samples from a pediatric hospital with remarkable success.

The ViroChip made its bona fide debut when scientists were trying to figure out what was causing the SARS outbreak in 2003. The U.S. Centers for Disease Control shipped a sample to DeRisi’s lab and within 24 hours they had used the ViroChip to characterize the virus as a novel coronavirus.

After a virus has been isolated on the chip, DeRisi can physically scrape the virus off the chip and sequence its DNA to get a more specific look at which virus is there.

The MacArthur Foundation thinks what DeRisi’s been up to is noteworthy. This week, it announced that DeRisi is one of 23 MacArthur Fellows, who receive a $500,000 “no strings attached” award this year to pursue their creative talents.

Asked what DeRisi will do with the money he said, “I definitely plan to use the money for more risky projects here at the lab.”

“But I also plan on buying a new bike,” he adds. “I commute on my bike everyday, and my current ride is fourteen years old. I figure it’s time to upgrade.”

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